When director Kristine Stolakis went to film school, she knew precisely what her first documentary would be about. It's a movement that according to one estimate has affected the lives of nearly 700,000 people in the U.S. with disastrous results.
"Conversion therapy" is the discredited practice that aims to convert a person's sexual orientation or gender identity to heterosexual or cisgender. It is often religious in nature, with groups claiming sexual orientation and gender identity can be changed through prayer.
Major U.S. medical groups have condemned the practice. More than 20 states have banned it from being done on minors.
For Stolakis, this subject was personal.
"My uncle, who was very dear to me, went through conversion therapy when he came out as trans as a child," Stolakis told NPR's Sarah McCammon on Morning Edition. "He never fully accepted himself. He was celibate his entire life. He also suffered from tremendous mental health challenges, from depression, anxiety, addiction, to obsessive-compulsive disorder, to suicidal ideations."
Stolakis' uncle died unexpectedly when she was about to start film school. And while doing research, she realized that many of the negative effects that her uncle experienced also happened to others who went through the conversion therapy process.
Researchers at San Francisco State University found in 2018 that rates of attempted suicide among LGBTQ youth more than double when parents try to change their sexual orientation, and increase even more when therapists and religious leaders also attempt to change young people's sexual orientation.
So for her Netflix documentary, Pray Away, Stolakis interviewed some of the biggest faces in the conversion therapy movement, which she says has been led primarily by LGBTQ+ Christians.
"I really expected to be furious at people who had led this movement," Stolakis said. "But the overwhelming feeling that I had was sadness actually. I think it was because of most of the people's good intentions. I don't think this is a movement of a few bad apples. It's a movement that's born out of a larger culture of homophobia and transphobia that still persists in the majority of Christian churches today."
One of the main subjects in the film is Randy Thomas, former Exodus executive vice president. He rose through the ranks of the organization, starting as a local leader and moving up to lobbying on behalf of the group for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation nationwide.
It wasn't until the suicide of his friend, who was also part of the "ex-gay" movement, that he reevaluated everything.
"It crushed me to know that the ideology that we had both ascribed to, that we had both lived by, that I had been promoting, had killed my friend," Thomas told NPR. "This ideology was something that I promoted and was spreading around the world was actually destructive and deadly. It's a regret that I will carry with me for the rest of my life."
Thomas and Stolakis spoke to McCammon on Morning Edition about what the current conversion therapy movement looks like today.
Interview highlights include extended web-only answers and have been edited for length and clarity:
Thomas on how he joined the "ex-gay" movement and Exodus International
I was out of the closet in the '80s. I got thrown out of the house, and I was not a very healthy person. And in 1992 I was looking for answers. I do believe that I had a genuine conversion experience to become a Christian. I found a church that was cool. It was full of artists. They had great worship. They also had a group for the gays, and underneath all of that coolness there was this toxic theology that said that you needed to overcome homosexuality. They had an Exodus group at that church, and I went in very skeptical. But this particular group was very subtle. I went to a couple of meetings, and it hooked me.
It was the first time I ever actually experienced community, honestly, sober. So it was in this place that I finally felt safe, even though it was toxic. That's one of the dangers of conversion therapy. It lures very wounded people, like I was, into its world, and it keeps us there. It's almost cultish in the way that you're roped into works, and how you think, and how you're rewarded with attention and love. And the limelight. It was intoxicating to be put on stages and do interviews and all this other stuff. It turns into this roundabout with no exit.
Stolakis on what the ex-gay and conversion therapy movement looks like today
Conversion therapy and the ex-LGBTQ movement has always been practiced locally. What we're seeing is that the current ex-LGBTQ organizations are actually rebranding in some ways and describing their work in language that might look very confusing, that might actually look a little affirming. [These organizations] adopt language from various types of civil rights discourse and even the LGBTQ rights movement. There are a lot of rainbow flags on people's Instagrams that you might see that are actually ministries that still practice and profess the same system that to be LGBTQ is a sickness and a sin and that you should change.
It's become very millennial-driven because there are younger people who've grown up in homophobic and transphobic environments who are ready and willing to take the place of people like Randy. It's the same movement; it just continues in new forms.
Thomas to church leaders who are still pushing conversion therapy onto their LGBTQ+ parishioners
Please watch this film. A lot of people don't realize that God does accept his LGBTQ+ children. All of the leaders in this film were tested. We were trusted. We understood these issues, and we didn't change our minds lightly.
Look in your heart. I think most religious leaders want permission to love and affirm God's LGBTQ+ children. They know that how we've been treated in the church culture is not fair. It's not good. It's actually abusive.
I'm saying with the most loving heart, no shame, no condemnation: Please, pastor, stop the abuse. Please allow yourself permission to love and affirm the LGBTQ+ children in your congregation. It's OK. Just let yourself do it.
Danny Hajek edited this interview for broadcast.